One of the most striking features of autism is the failure to develop or to understand complex social relationships. The overarching goal of Dr. Pierce’s research program is to elucidate the neural underpinnings of these social deficits in autism. Her studies have utilized several approaches, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and behavioral assays.
Functional imaging is playing an increasingly important role in the study of children with autism. Research has shown that dramatic structural and functional brain abnormalities emerge within the first few years of life with this disorder.
In contrast to studies in adults, a relative end-point of development, pediatric studies may provide more direct clues to the pathobiology of autism since investigations are occurring while developmental pathology is in process or soon thereafter.
Dr. Pierce has successfully obtained imaging data on over several hundred children, both normal and autistic. As the principal investigator of the functional brain imaging core at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), established by NIH in 2007, she is one of only a handful of investigators at UCSD, and nationwide, who is utilizing sleep fMRI as a research tool to study the functional brain development of babies at-risk for autism as young as 12-months in age.
Given that autism is typically not diagnosed until 2–3 years of age, she has been training a network of pediatricians throughout San Diego County on her innovative procedure—the 1-Year Well-Baby Check-Up Approach—for detecting infants and toddlers at-risk for autism at the earliest age possible. The procedure, which uses biological and behavioral profiles, was designed and developed by Dr. Pierce to identify children who are missing significant social milestones by their 1-year checkups.
Dr. Pierce will be expanding this research track as a co-investigator and leader of the Clinical Phenotype: Recruitment and Assessment Core, at the UCSD ACE. Participating San Diego-area pediatricians, as they identify at-risk infants, will be referring the families to the UCSD ACE for free evaluations.
Dr. Pierce also focuses on the use of eye tracking technology to establish patterns of eye gaze that may signify risk in babies. In late 2010 she discovered that babies at-risk for autism as young as 12-months spend greater time visually examining geometric patterns than they do social patterns. This newly described attribute of babies at-risk for autism which received worldwide press may aid in earlier diagnoses.
Dr. Pierce’s growing recognition and stature in the field of autism research is evidenced by invited lectures at the national and international levels. Additionally, she has served as an ad hoc reviewer for several well-regarded journals, including Archives of General Psychiatry, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Journal of Child Psychology, and Brain.
Her research is funded by several grants from the National Institute of Mental Health as well as private organizations such as Autism Speaks, National Foundation for Autism Research, and the Organization for Autism Research.
View a video on autism research with Drs. Karen Pierce and Eric Courchesne.
Visit the Autism Center of Excellence website